Stop yelling! I still can’t hear you!

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Key points:

  • About one in three people between 65 and 74 years old has hearing loss, and nearly half of people older than 75 do, according to the National Institute on Aging.
  • Zoom and other technology have made it easier for people with hearing loss to experience church and have community with other members.
  • Remote family members in other states can also join loved ones in Zoom worship services.

Barbara Dunlap-Berg. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Barbara Dunlap-Berg.
Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

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Last evening, I walked into a restaurant to order takeout. I had so much trouble understanding the properly masked employee that she finally interpreted by pointing to a menu. 

A few minutes later, my husband stopped by to pick up the order. He explained that although I had not left my name, I had mentioned my difficulty ordering because I could not hear. The employees knew exactly which order was ours.

According to the National Institute on Aging, approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing. 

I can relate. I’ve used state-of-the-art hearing aids for two decades. I love them. I also rely a lot on lip reading. However, with COVID-19 entering its third year and mask-wearing still the norm (and I do appreciate that!), reading lips and recognizing other facial cues are tough. 

Facemasks lower and slightly garble speech volume. Face shields, social distancing and plastic barriers further muffle or reduce sound. 

Before the omicron variant necessitated the use of N95 and KN95 masks, some people with hearing loss opted for masks with a clear plastic panel over the mouth. At the current time, however, these are not as safe as N95 and KN95 masks.

We live in Carbondale, where COVID-19 numbers are spiking again. I’ve been vaccinated and boosted since September 2021, and that provides a layer of protection. But my immediate family is lying low, trying to avoid sharing and spreading germs.

Early in the pandemic, my husband, younger daughter and I started attending virtual worship services at a United Church of Christ congregation in our neighborhood. We’d visited there occasionally and were curious about participating online. We were hoping for more than worship services recorded live on Facebook, which tend to be clergy-centric and lack immediate interaction between in-person and online attendees. We were not disappointed.

Ideas for including Deaf and hard of hearing in worship:

  • Always speak distinctly. Increase volume, but don’t yell!
  • Use eyes, hands and body movements to enhance your speech.
  • Offer virtual worship opportunities. Participants join from their homes, eliminating the need for wearing masks that complicate reading lips and recognizing facial cues.
  • For prerecorded worship services, include closed captioning.
  • For Zoom or in-person worship services, consider having an American Sign Language interpreter.
  • Subscribe to live translation services through Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART).
  • Try an alternative to shaking hands. Learn — and then teach the congregation — to pass the peace (“Peace be with you” or “I love you”) in ASL.

Dale O. Ritzel is an active member and the treasurer at Church of the Good Shepherd UCC. He recalled that when the shelter-in-place mandate was issued on Friday, March 13, 2020, worship services two days later were cancelled. He and the Rev. Kim Maguire knew they had to act quickly.

“I had been to some Zoom meetings,” Ritzel said, “but I had not set up or run a Zoom event. On March 16, I purchased for the church a Pro version of Zoom ($149.90/year), which we used for the first time on March 22.

“We can have up to 100 persons signing into the Zoom event,” he continued. “One can have a group event for up to 30 hours. You can do social media streaming (Facebook live, YouTube, etc.).” 

Each license includes a 1-gigabyte cloud recording. Because of the limited storage space, Ritzel saves all recordings to his computer’s hard drive. Zoom allows for video and audio conferencing, as well as screen sharing. Creating a meeting, joining a meeting and using enhancement tools are relatively intuitive, he said.

Early in the pandemic, I wondered how COVID-19 would affect worship attendance and church giving. At Church of the Good Shepherd, Ritzel said, both have increased, utility expenses have decreased, and church staff members have been retained and paid. People from other states and countries participate in worship. New people in the community attend online, and some have joined the church. An unexpected-but-proven consequence is better access for people with hearing challenges.

Best of all, the health and safety of church members and friends are not jeopardized.

Just before Easter 2021, Church of the Good Shepherd went to a hybrid format with worship both in the sanctuary and via Zoom. 

“We have had some Sundays since then,” Ritzel said, “where we were totally Zoom because of having an out-of-town supply minister or when COVID-19 raised its ugly head again. Having the flexibility to do a hybrid or a virtual service has been a great benefit to keeping our small church active and engaged.”

High COVID-19 numbers this winter forced a return to Zoom services. Small groups continue meeting via Zoom.

Recently, church leaders decided to upgrade the audio/video system. “One of the items that we included,” Ritzel noted, “is hearing-assist devices, which will amplify sound via Bluetooth setup to a person wearing a hearing device. We have four of them for the church services. One member uses them regularly.”

Church of the Good Shepherd is one of many congregations of many faiths offering online and hybrid worship opportunities. Steven K. Adair, director of local church services at United Methodist Communications, is worship and communications leader at Glendale United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He described his church’s efforts to reach – and embrace – as many people as possible.

“At Glendale United Methodist Church,” he said, “we make sure that those joining us online each week experience as close to an in-person worship experience as possible. We upgraded our audio equipment, along with a professional camera setup that not only makes sure all microphones are heard clearly for the automatic captioning services on Facebook and YouTube, but that the faces and mouths of people speaking are clearly visible for those who may rely on lip reading as well.” 

Adair continued, “We also use projectors that show lyrics and congregational prayers and confessions so that all can be a part of those aspects of worship, whether they are with us in person in a pew or at home on their couch.”

My family thoroughly enjoys Zoom worship. Over the past two years, we’ve become acquainted with more people than we might have met in face-to-face gatherings. Worshipers can choose to appear on video over Zoom – and many do. We can match names with faces. During the time for sharing joys and concerns, participants pray for one another. Immediately following the service, people stay online to visit.

Our older daughter and two granddaughters, who live 200 miles away in Nashville, Tennessee, are regular Zoom worshipers at the Carbondale church. In fact, granddaughter Cadence, 13, serves as a liturgist there at least once a month. That, to me, shows a congregation that meets people wherever they are. For that, I am especially grateful.

Retired from United Methodist Communications, Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor. She is a member of Grace United Methodist Church, Carbondale, Illinois

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